Oct 23, 2009

Sweet Child O' Mine

for S.

there are words that can't be translated adequately into other languages. the bengali 'obhimaan' is one such. no matter how hard i try, nothing in the english vocabulary comes close to capturing the mix of hurt, righteous outrage and disdain that is contained in that word. and much more.

i watched 'the wrestler' recently. an average flick, quite bollywoodish in places, but as everyone agrees, it rides strong on the back of mickey rourke's effortless performance as randy the 'ram', a jaded, past-his-prime ex-boxer who possesses the smarts of a country bumpkin.

theres a scene towards the end of the film, pretty much the last scene, where randy walks into the boxing arena amidst the usual screaming, applause and histrionics that mark WWF boxing. he has just turned his back on a chance to live again, to connect and matter to another, to do something apart from box. the exact things he'd been longing for throughout the film. there is neither anger, nor bitterness in him. just an overwhelming 'obhimaan' that there is no place for him outside the boxing arena. as 'sweet child o' mine' breaks out in the background, you feel randy's loneliness more acutely for u detect the seeds of ur own.

Oct 22, 2009

On middle age versus youth

Explaining he phenomenon of middle age that replaces the excitement of youth, judith warner writes, “There are trade-offs: intensity versus contentment, exaltation versus peace. And perhaps the best exchange of all: you trade in an idea of yourself for a reality that, if nothing else, can make you laugh.” Don’t know whether I should find solace in this or give in to the feeling of utter poignancy it evokes. Desolate seems a good word. Perhaps the fundamental difference is the gradual dawning and acceptance that you are neither the centre of the world, nor are things going to get much better. Life is, it will.

Sep 15, 2009

Notes On Goodbye Solo

'goodbye solo' is a much darker and disturbing film than its predecessors. i don't know that i can say i enjoyed it. rather, like 'million dollar baby' it has stayed with me well over the night and the days preceding my watching it. here, bahrani abandons NY & takes us to winston-salem, NC - his hometown. without preamble the film throws us in the midst of a dialogue between senegalese taxi driver solo and his white passenger william. in solo u can detect the clean lines, expressive eyes and statuesque physique of his african ancestors who probably ploughed the field in summer and sang communal songs of joy during harvest season. there is a lyricism to the african speech that is unmatched by any other. it is as if god intended these folks to sing and rap their way through life rather than lecture or speak. solo's favourite greeting 'yo dawg' with which he embraces everybody reveals a boisterousness, a joie de vivre, simplicity and a hard-to-defeat optimism that sometimes borders on grating. his irreprissible brand of bonhomie would be fine if you were in town for a nite out but completely out of place if, say, u were mourning the passing away of a dear one or had recently lost your job.

the blurb on the film's jacket says how, when william hires solo to drive him to a spot called blowing rock from where he does not plan to return, a strange relationship develops between the 2 men & that's what the film examines. solo quickly understands that william is contemplating suicide and in the days that follow, he tries his best to understand william's reasons for thus ending his life and to persuade him to change his mind. what is wonderful and something our indian directors must learn is that there are 2 areas that bahrani leaves untouched - willaim's personal history which surely holds the key to his current decision and solo's strange fixation with the white bloke who abuses him, insults him, and once, during a heated encounter even gives him a black eye. what is it that drives us and men like solo to care for another human being so deeply that social standards of privacy, esteem, space and respect cease to have any meaning? does solo's concern for william stem simply from his early observation that in his native senegal the old were cared for by the young, if required fed & carried, that families lived together and didn't abandon each other like in the white man's world? i don't think so. sure, solo feels obligated to william for some of that, but a larger part of his actions are motivated by some unnamed, inexplicable impulse that is both our cross as well as our blessing to carry. it is this impulse which makes us truly human. as simple as that.

however, it is to bahrani's credit that none of the unexplained bits jarr or play false. we accept solo's near obsessive concern for william as easily as we accept that something must have happened that has led william to conclude that he'd be better off dead. what i found a lot more difficult to accept, and bahrani keeps the suspense alive till the end, that here is a man who does everything in his power to change william's mind and does not succeed; that a human will is a strange unbendable thing - when set on a course, little anyone else does, is enough to dissuade it from following that course. such futility, such waste as is exhibited here, is hard to acknowledge and accept.

i don't know if this was my imagination but i think that part of the reason for solo's attachment towards william can be explained with a simple parental reference. in a scene towards the end, when solo sits reading the latter's diary and finds that he & alex have been mentioned, that he did have some worth or impact on william's life, there is a strange expression that lights his face. the closest i can come is an indian word 'abhimaan' or is it a small twinge of gratification that he mattered, that he counted. i can't really put my finger on it, but it is a haunting scene and the solo we meet in the last few scenes is completely different from the buoyant young man we had witnessed earlier. is it that he has become aware of his own limitations and in turn his mortality? perhaps the hard to dent optimism has given way to a more grounded awareness that sometimes, despite our best efforts, there are exams in life that one is not meant to 'ace'. and nothing about this realisation is defeatist in nature and therein lies bahrani's triumph. just like ali in 'chop shop' knows there are dreams that he must chase even if he never realises them, solo gradually comes to a wiser perception that some of our triumphs lie in our efforts, not the results they yield. gita-esque definitely but that's about all this film leaves u with.

Aug 14, 2009

A Change Too Late: the Challenge Hillary Clinton & We All Face

During Hillary Clintons much publicized trip to Congo, she was asked by a student in Kinshasa what her husband thought about congo’s trade deal with china. The nurse ratched-like always-cool-under-pressure ice queen reacted most unusually. She snapped at the hapless guy, “'You want me to tell you what my husband thinks? My husband is not the Secretary of State, I am.” With this the nation’s media went beserk and blogs, podcasts, columnists, etc have laughed and jeered so much that I suspect even George carlin’s shows never have generated as much entertainment as ol’ hilly did. The American media has always hated her; it was as if only by denigrating her credentials, could one show solidarity towards obama. Fox TV anchors are having a field day with most of them going overboard using & this as an opportunity to dissect feminism, demanding apologies, perceiving the seeds of her crumbling marriage and reading signs of early dementia. At least one of them must be true. After all Hillary rodham, the fullbright scholar from Wellesley, the first woman to propose a radical healthcare plan and a highly successful NY senator, couldn’t be all perfect, could she?

I have observed that whenever a woman asserts her intelligence or independence to the world, it has to be couched in terms of an apology. The sense of wrong, pretended or real, is as much for those virtues that came to her instead of the spouse or brother, as the burden of lifelong success that such virtues usually promise.

Currently, as secretary of state, Hillary is focusing on rehabilitating the condition of women in Africa who have been raped, infected with HIV and left to die in the unending civil wars that plague the continent. She has to fight ignorance, fear, poverty, taboo, militancy before she can make any difference. But before that she has to fight her personal battles of womanhood – that insidious, murky, crippling institution of male chauvinism that survives by virtue of trivializing its women. Pls note, this is not an affront to men; just a sad legacy that many of us still content with frequently.

In order to truly emerge as secretary of state in her own right & not the wife of the ex-prez, she must lash out as she did at the African student for sometimes u have to speak louder for the hard of hearing. Perhaps, what makes this whole issue so ignoble is the idea of pitching a perfectly matched gifted couple against each other. A Rhodes scholar and one of the finest minds on international affairs, bill Clinton is more than a match for ol’ hilly. But no, it has to be either her or him. Media pundits now intuit that she snapped because of the publicity that bill garnered by negotiating the release of the two American journos from north korea.

If such is the dogma the modern woman has to fight, what role do we really seek for ourselves? One of insulation and segregation or the more challenging role of integrating our positions within the society that polarizes us? The hubby thinks sexual harassment is the worse a woman can face in the workplace. I disagree. Fighting the bastion of male domination & trivialization of female roles is a far greater menace. It is subtler, more powerful, infinitely more demoralizing and definitely far more widespread.

Women’s empowerment won’t be delivered at the end of a gun or through economic sanctions or even overt criticism, unless it can supplant accepted cultural practices with an independent order that recognizes merit over gender and virtue over beauty and incentivizes powerful women instead of laughing away their efforts. Are we really getting there or merely comforting our daughters with a dream?

Jul 29, 2009

Meaning of Life

Was reading pico iyer’s wonderful piece in the NYT and hence this blog. This is the part that moved me the most, “The first words the Dalai Lama said when he came into exile, I learned not long ago, were “Now we are free.” He had just lost his homeland, his seeming destiny, contact with the people he had been chosen to rule; he had been forced to undergo a harrowing flight for 14 days across the highest mountains in the world. But his first instinct — the result of training and teaching, no doubt, as much as of temperament — was to look at what he could do better. Now.”

I read Dale Carnegie rather late in life. Yeah, some 4.5 yrs ago to be precise. I was 29 & pregnant in my third trimester & my baby had stopped moving. Doc Maity, the old curmudgeon who ultimately delivered D, told me curtly, ‘Ask god to give u the strength to bear things which u cannot change; ask him to give u the power to change things which u can.’ Saying this he thrust a dog-eared copy of carnegie’s definitive ‘How to Stop Worrying and Start Living’ into my tear-stained face. I couldn’t quite hate him for he’s a surrogate pa for me, but curse his blithe spirit, I sure did.

Over the next few years I have read, pored over & saved countless articles/blogs which essentially talk about the same thing. Whether it’s the fable of the glass being half empty, the serenity prayer, or inspiring tales of people who have turned their lives around despite upheavals, nothing touches me more than these anecdotes of unknown people who exhibit such outstanding instances of courage. We talk of wonders & the paucity of them in the modern world. Isn’t the existence of such people a wonder? Isn’t the ability to feel awe & genuine respect in the face of relentless cynicism, a wonder?

Finally, why are we really here on this earth? A great fate & immortal fame is guaranteed to only the select few. But when u get down to brass tacks it is indeed thoughts of future generations of mankind that must keep folks like u & me going. How else can I explain your impulse to propel the rain-water harvesting initiative in your building? How else can I explain your selflessness in agreeing to tutor those smelly slum kids twice a week? Why is someone like bill gates even championing the cause of Functional Foods to combat global malnutrition? It is about posterity. Sabyasachi Chakravorty who plays the role of a terrorist leader in mani ratnam’s ‘dil se’ tells fresh recruit manisha koirala, “It’s not imp that we are born in a perfect world; what is important is that we leave behind a better dawn for the children who follow when we die.’ How simple, yet how profound.
Is this all getting too mushy? Ok, let’s touch upon some rudimentary economics. All of what I’ve said above is not merely some grand moral singsong. It is also grounded in fundamental economic principles. Would you begin to build an empire that u know couldn’t anticipate the business needs of tomorrow’s consumers? If social media integration stopped with orkut, would we all be poring over twitter feeds from gul panag and Nicholas kristof? Definitely not.

While the capitalist desire for profit making is fundamentally self-absorbing, I do believe once the immediate need for bottom lines & shareholder profits is fulfilled, companies drive innovation not merely to improve P/L accounts but also to leave something behind for posterity. America’s greatest museums, university scholarships & libraries, science & literary awards are funded by private philanthropists, not government sponsored. Our home grown Tata’s are another case in point. i once had the good fortune to visit a Piramal plant in rural Himachal Pradesh that was fully run by women! Yes, a machine component plant that was 100% manned by women workers and this was a deliberate decision taken by the senior management aimed at uplifting & empowering the women in that region. Those words from ‘dil se’ words make sense now?

Jun 28, 2009

Friends and Lovers

When i started this blog, i'd thought i'd keep writing about the countless people who inspire me in passing, who give me reason to celebrate & hope, not always rant. sadly, it hasn't happened as planned. which is why sandhya and amit are indeed a special story that needs to be told. there's not too many people who read my blog, but for once i am hoping many many folks come & tune in to the story of this wonderful couple.

i first heard of sandhya via my colleague jayant. he told me of them and i remember telling A about them over ISD. jayant's cousin is married to amit's elder brother. the 2 brothers live with their spouses and parents in gurgaon & have been featured on CNN-IBN.

sandhya is a qualified software engineer who met with a terrible road accident a few months after the families had formalized her engagement to amit. after all the two were seeing ecah other for the past 4 years. onlookers said there was almost nothing left of sandhya's maruti 800 after it'd been hit by the truck. how they managed to extricate her out of the wreck is anybody's guess.

when many many arduous months in the hospital & three surgeries later, a 45-kg, shaven headed, pale, quadraplegic sandhya emerged from the hospital, most of the people present silently wished that the gruesome accident hadnt spared her. sandhya told me yesterday that even her parents didnt wish otherwise; they merely put up a brave front for her sake.

from fighting bed sores, to learning the use of breathing techniques to minimise the risk of pneumonia, to learning to eat with her own hands and ease into the wheelchair, she did it all. amit continued to visit and help her as much as she permitted. he confessed quite frankly that at that point he didnt know what the future held for them, for everyday held its own immediacy and urgency that had to be conquered. he didn't entertain any thoughts regarding marriage; all he knew was that she was in terrible pain and he had to help her as much as he could.

almost a year after her release from the hospital, sandhya & amit got married. sandhya weighed a mere 46 kg & the sticthes on her neck still glowed angry.

today sandhya works from home as a software developer and amit in an AMC. they have a full-time maid to help sandhya, plus undiluted love and support from other members of amit's family. by the time she was telling me about amit's dad who insists on learning java from his daughter-in-law, we were both crying like the morons we women are.

i am one of the most cynical people i know and have scant respect for sentimentality.thats the single most reason why i deride myself more often than not. in sandhya's place would i have been able to trust amit with my dependency? in amit's shoes, would i have dared take a plunge that had all the markings of disaster? i think not. i dont think i have changed markedly after my encounter with them. i am just so awfully grateful that i got to meet this wonderful couple, that their generosity allowed them to accomodate me in their lives and share it with a complete stranger. i am touched that jayant remembers me from delhi where he's now relocated and knew how touched i'd been when he'd first told me about them. i am sad that no matter what, sandhya cant wipe the darness in her eyes; i am happy that amit treats her weight gain post marraige with the teasing banter most men do.

i think these are guys i am gonna love interacting with.

Jun 7, 2009

Thoughts on The Alchemy of Desire

If you really think about it - what is that single notion or idea or fact that we can conclusively define as ‘real’ in a world ruled by mirrors, illusions & make belief – it is only kindness & creativity. Both are immeasurably priceless & achingly rare. To read tarun tejpal’s debut novel The Alchemy of Desire (TAOD) is to be reminded of this.

It is powerfully creative & has passages of such beauty & poignancy that one is reminded that indeed, more than beauty or brilliance, it is kindness that makes people or incidents memorable. Take for instance the foll passage where the narrator describes his mood after 2 truck drivers who had hitherto never ventured beyond gethia, a small town near nainital, are completely disoriented at their 1st visit to delhi’s chaotic wonder & decide to escape home in the middle of the night:
“But now I wanted to sit down in the street & cry.
It had to do with the thought of the two of them hurtling back home in the night, furtive & alone. The fineness of their spirit & the meanness of the world. I know how large-hearted they were; and how easily they could be overwhelmed. It was the story of the rural & the tribal everywhere. The tale of all-who-will- be-swiftly-dispossessed. They approach the new world armed with a generosity of spirit – as can only be reaped from working the land. but the modern world has no value for it. They are stranded on the crossroads of history; quickly overrun by the surging traffic of development & growth; stopped by the red light of new fangled laws & economic thesis; impounded by the gendarmes of corporate kings………………………….they are left to play a game the did not choose. With rules they do not know. The world survives by those who have generosity of spirit. But is owned by those who have none.”

In another place, he writes of his mother:
“I could sit & talk to her for hours about her childhood, her college years. The kind of stuff that breaks the heart of most sons if they only stop to listen……Even now, as I write this with everything long over I just have to think of her in pigtails, laughing, flashing her bangles, & a wilderness fills my mind. I have to get up from my desk & go for a walk. Climb up to the waterpoint , gaze at the valley, let the calm seep back into me. I have trained myself to not think of her. Sorrow must not be cultivated. It is a poor lifestyle choice.”

Nowhere else is the reader more aware of the narrators essential humanity, his capacity for unbridled compassion, than in these passages & perhaps that’s why it leaves an indelible impression on us.

This rich, layered & colourful novel was released in 2005, won some funny French award (prix millepages) & most notably was endorsed by Naipul as “ new and brilliantly original novel”. Coming from someone who barely acknowledges half the work being done in the English literary scene today, this is high praise indeed. Now, a little digression regarding my thoughts about the book before I embarked upon it. The past few years have been extremely distressing for me as a reader with me not quite enjoying a huge variety of celebrated & original authors like pamukh, rushdie, murakami, anne enright, to name a few. For someone whose lust for books is as endless as the tejpal’s narrator’s for his effervescent wife Fizz, this spells serious trouble. Just as TAOD begins with the deterioration & gradual demise of a once-upon-a-time passionate, life giving & defining relationship, I have also been beset by doubts, a vague undefined sadness & occasional bouts of self directed anger at my inability to appreciate such wonderful book which everyone else seems to be raving about. I had actually begun to imagine that I’d no longer come across a book that would make me want to mark passages, read out sections to someone close, stroke its spine lovingly like one would a lover’s back, or simply keep it close under the pillow as I slept. Don’t imagine this is neurotic for I have felt thus about umpteen books in the past. I don’t know how to explain this but there’s a gradual feeling of dilution, of being washed away, when one of the most defining loves of your life doesn’t grant u complete satisfaction. It casts doubts on ur selfhood, period. This is exactly what was happening to me as I trudged, over the years, from rushdie to pamukh to murakami & failed to scale the previous highs that I’d known in my affairs with mistry, roth, hardy, greene, updike, ishiguro, among others. And then, I discovered tejpal’s Alchemy.

It’s been a fortnight since I have read the novel & I keep longing to start it afresh knowing fully well I won’t. Nothing can measure up to the thrill of discovering an author novel (u will go on to enjoy immensely) for the first time. Any true bibliophile will tell you how disappointing it always is when u tackle the same book again, imagining in your mind the sudden discovery of several bits of treasure that u missed out the first time. Even when u do discover those treasures, they seem tawdry & trinket-like in the face of the original sea-chest u uncovered the 1st time u read the book. Such is the power of a great book.

May 31, 2009

Paradise Lost or Rejected

'Dev D’ reminded me of the DPS MMS scandal that shook the nation a few years ago. At that time I like many others was unequivocal in my disgust and loathing at the spectacle of young children who had made news out of peddling what should have been the most sacred (ok, I am old fashioned) and private of acts into a sickening display of how fast track technology coupled with rampant consumerism had eaten into the moral fabric of our lives. I cannot say that I never stopped to think about the girl in question, I did; but there was a sort of quasi ‘she-got-what-she-deserved’ strain that diluted much of my anxiety and concern about her future. A larger share of my sympathy was reserved instead for the parents who through no fault of their, were being forced to live and participate in this nightmare.

I think time and motherhood has changed a lot of that – not that I find the whole episode any less distasteful. What has changed is perhaps that the focus of my attention, the pivot, has shifted from the two adolescent participants to the surrounding world that encompasses them.

One of the common ideas that has unified all nations and civilizations across ages has been a uniform insistence on the ‘myth of the lost childhood’, a recurrent idea that has permeated popular culture through films, TV talk shows, and literature, and even occupied a special place in anthropological and scientific studies. This theory of childhood as an exalted place of special privilege and innocence that has succumbed to a Faustian future of eternal damnation actually arises from our own inability to fight the very forces that usher in such bleakness. Parents regularly lose sleep over a whole range of issues and usually interpret ‘corrupt’ or wayward behavior in terms of simple morality, of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’, of ‘us’ versus ‘they’, of ‘then’ versus ‘now’. What we fail to realize is that they are a product of our lifestyle – the 24x7 stress, high degree of competitiveness, parents’ busy schedules and the accompanying compensatory consumerism. All of this often results in conveying conflicting set of instructions to children.

A closer examination of our motives and lives will reveal that most of our moral panics regarding our children are merely a reflection of our own fears. Mostly it is the fear of losing face, alongside the more fundamental fear of loss of ground. Not only are we apprehensive about what others’ will say, we’re plagued by insecurities regarding the social standing and economic well being of our children. So great are these insecurities that we struggle without comprehending that the real focus of our anxiety is not that the child fared poorly in his mid-term semester but that we intuit in this the seeds of a far greater failure to live up to the standards prescribed by our success.

It doesn’t help that medical jargon and the media often offer an easy way out to parents with their overblown focus on ‘messed-up kids’ or, ‘emotionally disturbed adolescents’; they offer clueless parents a way out to avoid looking inwards, to introspect and take stock of the highly complex problems of everyday life.

Maria Kefalas, of St. Joseph’s University, a specialist in teen sexual behavior says, “For a 14-year-old to be having sex it’s usually a symptom of a kid who’s really broken and really hurt. ...Teen pregnancy is so high in America compared to other places not just because of access to contraception but because we have a lot of poverty. But Americans don’t want to see themselves as a poor society. They want to make a moral argument: if only teens had better values.” The same can be applicable in every case in differing degrees.

While I largely agree that more than parenting, one’s peer group influences early behavior to a large degree, the onus on setting the right milestones rests squarely on us parents/guardians. In this light it is important that we re-examine the very nature of the milestones and whether they gel with the larger domestic fabric of our shared lives and interactions. It is no use lecturing one’s children against rampant materialism if buying a toy after every bitter argument you’ve had with your child is your way of demonstrating love. Instead of blaming the West or the onslaught of MTV or Channel V or mulling the strange appeal of teenage style icons like Britney Spears, we need to cast a keener eye on the kind of dysfunctional household where a child finds nothing wrong in uploading nude photographs of oneself on the Net. Imagine the lack of real life model in the child’s life who cannot even envisage a lack of self esteem in the act; imagine the desolate solitude of his existence where he is so starved for attention that he is incapable of discerning between right and wrong kinds of attention.

Cross posted from 4indiawomen

Notes on The Reader

It is difficult to really like Stephen Daldry’s ‘The Reader’, despite the Oscar buzz it generated or Kate Winslet’s numerous award wins. For a film that pretends to examine the whole issue of moral ambiguity, it is oddly predictable, maudlin, and in places, even frivolous. In my opinion The Reader is a good example of how wasted even great actors can be when they are part of a project that is shorn of even the most rudimentary exercise of creativity or vision. Individually there are parts of The Reader that dazzle you, but sadly the whole does not create a similar effect.

Also, The Reader seems to have been made so obviously keeping the Oscars in mind – the tried and tested theme of Holocaust guilt, quotes from and references to great literature, the rain drenched, wintry continental landscape and an unmitigated air of mourning – that whatever genuine moments do exist, lose their efficacy. First, Hollywood directors have to understand that it’s time to move beyond the Holocaust, not that I’m trivializing it. I see a similar syndrome shaping up with regard to Bush’s invasion of Iraq – it will come to epitomize America’s worst capitalist and discriminatory impulses in years to come. But that is far from the truth. America has done worse and we need to think beyond stereotypes. Sure, the invasion was a shame, as was Auswitch, but mankind has silently stood by too many other shameful incidents in China, Cambodia, Rwanda, Afghanisthan, and other places for filmmakers to repeatedly circle the same corpses like carrion birds.

In this story of personal awakening, we have Michael Berg (played as a teenager by David Kross and an adult by Ralph Fiennes) enter into a brief but passionate affair with Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) a woman much older to him. The grungy, gloomy and cramped apartment that is Hannah’s home forms the backdrop to their passionate encounters in which sex and reading are irrevocably joined. Michael has to first read to Hannah from literature as diverse as Tintin comics to Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ before which will she allow him to make love. Though the affair is short lived, only lasting the summer, it has a profound impact on both their lives. When Hannah suddenly disappears one day, Michael is left bereft with a hole in his heart that nothing and nobody he meets later in life can fill. The film jumps a couple of years when Berg, now a law student, attends a trial where Hannah is the defendant for her role as a guard in the wartime death camps in Auswitch. There is something that Michael knows about his former lover that will surely mitigate her sentence, but he chooses to remain silent and Hannah is sentenced to life in prison.

In a film that likes to make obvious most of its underlying themes, Daldry exhibits reticence and manages to convey well the horror, guilt and shame that stop the young Michael from standing up for the truth. He is challenged to discover that he cares about someone whom he ought to rightfully despise. While The Reader aims to examine many aspects of guilt and culpability (and not all pertaining to World War II), it is often way too evident in its approach.

What this silence will cost both of them and what if anything at all, can emerge out of a bond, no matter how shameful or sordid it may appear to society, is the larger question that the film examines in the rest of the film. There comes a point in The Reader when you know you have been moved, but just not enough; when you know a terrible thing has taken place before your eyes, but you’re too disconnected to care. And it is precisely when I was feeling thus that the narrative delivers a punch, which frankly could be the only kind of redemption that is allowed to its flawed protagonists. To disclose what happens is to kill what makes The Reader worth watching. In a scene that extends well over 8 odd minutes and is underscored by the most divine music by Nico Muhly, with Ralph Fiennes reading aloud passages from great literature, we have the essence of The Reader; it answers the question of salvation or its lack thereof.

Kate Winslet as Hannah embodies the contradictions of the role perfectly, and in a way that makes perfect sense when we learn all her guilty secrets. We understand how the toughness and coldness she exhibits in the beginning are a product of her self-defensiveness and shame - not just because of the surprising secret that Michael knows alone, but also because of the guilt that she feels over the horrific things she's done, and her firm conviction that she is not really deserving of love. That's what made it so shattering later on when the defenses have been stripped away and you see the fear, the vulnerability, and the weight of the choices she's made. Her hardness is a defense that allows her to carry on living. Once it's taken away from her, she crumbles. It is a testament to her superb acting skills that she manages to perform splendidly in a role that isnt supported by the best script & make up.

David Kross playing the teenaged Michael makes a stupendous international debut and successfully conveys the shame, confusion, thrill and joy of discovering and exploring his budding sexuality. He is angry at Hannah’s callous indifference, but also hopelessly devoted to her. Some of the film’s truly meaningful scenes with Michael are executed by David Kross, who effectively paves the way for the confused teenager to grow into a conflicted young man. Ralph Fiennes is his usual superb self but there isn’t much that he is given here to work with.

Daldry and David Hare who has written the screenplay, based on the book by Bernhard Schlink, have earlier worked together in The Hours, a film that balances its handling of multiple time periods much more successfully than The Reader does. The cinematography by Chris Menges and Roger Deakins deserves mention. It creates the right shade of grey that is so suited to this grim examination of human frailty and connivance in the face of evil and its sudden impulse to do right when given a second chance.

Is The Reader a film worth watching? Sure, it is if you are a cinephile who loves to look beyond Slumdog Millionaire. However, if you are hard pressed for time or not really interested in international films, then you can surely give The Reader a miss.

Cross posted from here

May 8, 2009

Notes on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I went to watch ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ with great expectations; after all it was directed by David Fincher of ‘Fight Club’, ‘Seven’ and ‘Zodiac’ fame and the screenplay was by Eric Roth who previously gave us the delightful ‘Forrest Gump’. I wasn’t disappointed though the rest of the world seems to have a whole host of problems ranging from Roth’s extensive reworking of the original story, the lack of traction in Benjamin’s character to the film’s 166 minute running time.

‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ is loosely based on Scott Fitzgerald’s short story that combines equal measures of satire, humour and whimsy, with no scope for any serious introspection about life, the pathos of old age and the transitory nature of romantic fulfillment. Both the story and the film are about a man who's born elderly and grows younger.

Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is born in 1918, ‘the day the Great War ended’, with not only the puckered face of an old man, but clogged arteries, arthritis and other assorted conditions that define old age. His father, horrified at his son’s deformities, leaves him at the doorstep of an old-age home where Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who works there, brings him up. It is here that he meets Daisy (Cate Blanchett), the love of his life, who comes to visit her grandmother at the home. The two have an on-again/off-again relationship as Benjamin grows from a helpless old man to a helpless baby.

Outwardly alike to the inmates of the old-age home in appearance and infirmities, Benjamin grows from infant to toddler to fretful 11 year old among them. It is never his fate to join the neighbourhood children in their games; he can only sit on the varnished rocking chair like the other inmates and watch them wistfully. He is especially bereft for the other inmates of the home have at least enjoyed a childhood and can recollect it but Benjamin never gets to actually live any state of his life as it ought to be lived. With the perspective of a perennial outsider, Benjamin alternately identifies with the playful children he can see, as also the aged tenants with whom he has to live. He learns not to view death with despair, rather to accept it with equanimity as an inevitable end to life. This is a terrible wisdom for a child to possess. Says one of the residents he befriends, “We’re meant to lose the people we love. How else are we supposed to know how important they are?”

At 17, when he looks and feels considerably fitter than before, Benjamin joins the eccentric Mike the captain of a tugboat. It is through his adventures on the tugboat that Benjamin develops any real relationship outside the one he has so long shared with Queenie. With help from Mike he visits a prostitute whom he more than amazes with his desperate hammering and who has no way of knowing that the man who looks old enough to be nearly 70 is actually a teenager.

After Pearl Harbour, the tugboat is recruited by the U.S Navy where Benjamin loses most of his comrades and finally lands up in Russia in the heart of severe winter. Stranded in an old hotel, snowed in from all sides, Benjamin is finally free at last. Also alone. Bereft of Quennie’s overwhelming concern, Mike’s boisterous personality, or Daisy’s magic spell, he is finally free to form adult relationships and that is exactly what he does. His affair with Elizabeth (a mysterious and regal Tilda Swinton) not only reveals to him that he is capable of being loved by others apart from Queenie, but also about the sadness of lost dreams. Elizabeth we learn was an ace swimmer who was so buckled by her failed attempt to cross the English Channel that she never attempted it again in her life. When the affair ends abruptly, Benjamin is neither surprised nor heartbroken, yet even this has contributed to his growth and shown him the importance of pursuing ones dreams, no matter how transient life itself is. In retrospect he writes to his daughter much later, “It’s never too late to be whoever you want to be”, and “Your life is defined by its opportunities, even the ones you miss”. These may seem like Archies greeting card sentiments but fall into place in the film.

Post his return from Russia and after much ado, Daisy and he finally end up together. That it is again the fortuitous hand of luck that throws Daisy and him together is explained in one of the best interludes of the film where a series of unrelated, chance incidents conspire to move events in a fashion which unites him with his childhood sweetheart. It is impossible to watch the sequence and not think that had things transpired otherwise, Benjamin’s life would have turned out quite differently. It is Daisy who tells their story from her deathbed in modern-day New Orleans as her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) reads to her passages from Benjamin’s diary.

While the first 90 minutes of the film are a bit slow, perfectly in keeping with the elegiac tone of the film and its cinematography, the second half of the film which deals with Benjamin’s shared life with Daisy, her decision to have his child in the face of his growing fears and her firm determination that she will somehow make ‘them’ work, Benjamin’s gradual decent into youth and finally wordless infancy, are what truly makes this film worthy of its Oscar nomination. Without going into details let me just say that Benjamin with his curious disability, sees and does everything and a lot more than any one of us ever has. He shows how rehabilitating love can be to anyone who has been born unfortunate; likewise he also shows that there are some journeys, that no matter how arduous, must be undertaken alone. Daisy’s untiring love and caring for him and his selflessness in always putting her welfare before his is the idea that underscores this part. Seen in this way, ‘Benjamin Button’ is no better than a simple love story about two people who never wanted anything better than to build a life together, who pass through much of their early years with their paths crossing each others, and who when they finally meet, realize the sweet pain of a life together that was too short.

The splendid cinematography by Claudio Miranda captures the passage of time from 1918 to 2005 with its use of sepia tone photography. It does full justice to the slow, languid quality of Benjamin’s childhood in early 20th century New Orleans, as well as the lived-in feel of the home he builds with Daisy in the 60’s. For a film that is so high on soul, the music by Alexandre Desplat is tepid and fails to impress. There is none of the vibrancy of Thomas Newman’s ‘Feather Theme’ that so enhanced the appeal of ‘Forrest Gump’.

While there are several elements that are common to the story of Benjamin and Forrest, chiefly due to the unfortunate disabilities they are born with, ‘Benjamin Button’ is less about finding gold at the end of the rainbow. It is perhaps the best film to have come out in recent terms that examines the enduring quality of love, the healing that flows from it naturally and the message of hope that stems from it. After all it is because of this love that Benjamin finds the courage to live his words, “I hope you live a life you are proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”

p.s. earlier published in 4indiawomen

Apr 26, 2009

Notes on Milk

Both ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘Milk’ are about individuals who battle and finally emerge victorious against gargantuan odds. Thankfully that’s where the similarity ends. Unlike the lucky protagonist of ‘SM’, the hero of the other film has nothing to thank his luck for. Born into a society that forced him to hide the true nature of his sexuality for several years, Harvey Milk an investment banker in New York is 40 before the unwelcome realization dawns on him “Forty years old and I haven't done a thing that I'm proud of”; he is only 46 and in public office for less than a year when he’s gunned down by fellow City Supervisor Dan White. Convinced by his lover Scott that he ‘needs a change’ Milk embarks on the journey of his life, one that will encompass and then surpass such tags as gay to include all minorities -- ‘All you tired, poor, huddled masses’ -- the words he echoes towards the film’s close and which are inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

There are those who protest that the film is exclusivist – restricted to a particular time in history, to a specific ‘kind’ of people. Such folks need to wake up and review the recent California Proposition 8 that bans gay marriages; they need to listen to Milk’s last speech a little more carefully for he is unambiguous in reiterating that he fights for all those disenfranchised, the marginalized, and the unsung. And God knows there are a few of those around and they sure aren’t all gay. The scenes of intimacy between Milk and his first lover Scott and later with Jack are shot with such clear eyed understanding of what constitutes real intimacy - the blending together of lives and personalities - that it transcends the gay experience and places it firmly in the sphere of universal human experience. When Milk weeps for his dead lover like Ledger does in ‘Brokeback Mountain’, we don’t really care if it is one man crying for another.

Van Sant wisely focuses his film on the last 6 years or so of Milk’s life for these were the most transformative; we latch on to his story as he is about to discover himself. Those uninitiated with Milk’s story are told at the film’s onset that he was shot along with mayor Moscone by Dan White in 1978. We are then shown Milk recording his story on tape in case he is assassinated and it is from here that his story is presented before us.

Milk’s affair with Scott begins in a New York subway where he picks up the younger man in the casual fashion of popular gay fantasy. However, this soon develops into one of the most meaningful relationships of his life and even after their break-up, Scott and he remained close. They move to Castro in suburban LA where they open a camera shop which gradually becomes a meeting point for activists, gay spokesmen, dissenters, and trade union leaders who want to do something about the incessant police harassment meted out to gays, black minorities and others of their ilk. Assisted by a trusted coterie of followers, Milk mounts a popular campaign for the post of City Supervisor. He stands on a wooden box and delivers fiery speeches which unfailingly begins with the words, “I am Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you”. After three failed attempts, he wins the elections and becomes the nation’s first openly gay public official. It is interesting that he wins the elections in the same year when he recruits lesbian campaign manager Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill) to run his campaign. Milk’s coterie has so far been an all-male frat party where the boys “don’t particularly care about girls”.

Once elected to public office Milk starts his fight against the divisive Proposition 6 that ordained the dismissal of gay teachers and their sympathizers from the state’s public schools. In fact, the specter of Prop 6 looms large over the film and without resorting to any theatrics, Van Sant hints at the irreversible damage that Prop 6 can wreck. What was truly frightening for Milk was that it had already been passed in several states like Oregon and Florida. He is pitched against a tide of volatile homophobia represented by singer Anita Bryant and Senator Briggs. Prop 6 is the bulwark against which the entire edifice of persecution rests. It is one of the acts in the ongoing drama of civil rights outrage that saw millions being massacred in Nazi Germany, during Pol Pot’s communist regime in Cambodia and in Mao’s China. It is a warning against irrational intolerance and hatred that demonizes those we don’t understand or even try to; it victimizes those who are unlike us – be they black, gay, muslim, jew or communist.

I can’t say that Milk is my favourite Sean Penn film for I liked him no less in ‘Dead Man Walking’ or ‘Mystic River’. What riveted me to this performance was the effortless kindness, the natural generosity of the man who shared his life and home so openly with every straggler who chanced there, that Penn so successfully communicates. A lesser man or maybe one with more smarts would have known when to end the relationship with the neurotic Jack, but not Milk. Few scenes carry as much punch as when Milk tells a Minnesota teenager over the phone, “You are not sick, you are not bad and God loves you.” Those words and the way Penn delivers them will go a long way in healing many a broken soul. He captures the humour, impishness and flirty charm that must’ve made Milk irresistible. Not once does he go overboard in depicting the effeminate toss of the head or movement of the hand. It is all there and yet never pronounced.

Most of the supporting cast turns in superb performances from Alison Pill who plays Anne Kronenberg, his cheery campaign manager, to Emile Hirsch who plays his protégé and active campaigner Cleve Jones. James Franco as Scott combines pathos and dignity in equal measure. Danny Elfman’s opening music is both moving and haunting. The cinematography by Harris Savides mixes actual archival footage with current shots and this gives the film a sense of history.

Much has been made of Josh Brolin’s Dan White, the deeply conflicted, intense and angry fellow supervisor who shot Milk and Mayor Moscone. Though Milk once says that he suspects White to be a closet gay, “He is one of us”, I don’t think there is enough evidence in the film to conclude that as a trigger for his unhappiness or final actions. White’s motivations could range from simple professional rivalry, jealousy, an unbalanced mind, a seething anger against the outsider and his comeuppance, or mixed feelings about his mundane suburban existence. We don’t really know. It is to Brolin’s credit that he communicates this ambiguity well. He is nervous, hyperactive, fidgety, and simmering with suppressed outrage. It is no irony that the happily married White unable to sleep at night, sits alone naked looking out of the window, while Milk spends the entire night talking to his soul mate Scott over the phone. Nothing brings home the man’s loneliness better than this scene, just like nothing delivers a greater blow to the rosy picture of marital bliss. Perhaps the only place where I found him reverting to stereotype was the scene of his drunken encounter with Milk. The belligerence is all right, as is the underlying resentment, but it all appears a tad like mimicry, like Brolin is aping a drunken man rather than actually playing one.

Van Sant’s latest film is much more accessible than his previous ‘Paranoid Park’. For a man who veers between commercial endeavours like ‘Goodwill Hunting’ and ‘Finding Forrester’ and examinations of disturbed people as in ‘Paranoid Park’ or ‘Last Days’, there is no doubt which category ‘Mik’ belongs to. Perhaps it is a conscious choice for this openly gay director. Perhaps he knew the scope and substance of Milk’s story required the humility of a simple narrative. Whatever it is, Milk is a worthy star in Van Sant’s galaxy.

p.s. earlier published in 4indiawomen

Mar 20, 2009


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Feb 17, 2009

Don’t Wait For Godot: 26/11 Mumbai Blasts

The Mumbai blasts took place only a few days after I’d returned from the U.S amidst much eager anticipation at the change I would witness in the nation of my birth, my home. The next few days saw a flurry of activity, with everyone from journalists to the aam aadmi holding candle light vigils, writing petitions, sprouting bombast and criticizing the rescue operation. Almost everyone was sure that change was imminent and everyone from Javed Akhtar to Anu Kapoor proved their patriotism by yelling ‘Enough is enough’ repeatedly. Waiting for concrete action and change has become akin to that much celebrated vigil for Godot.

Now, almost 3 months later, much posturing, jago re and slogan writing later, we are still haggling over the issue of Pakistan’s guilt or innocence, the correct response to our unfriendly neighbour, what authorities from the U.S and U.K think about Pak’s role and ways to reform civil society so that such incident can be avoided. While it is important that the new American president understand and share our concerns regarding Pak’s support of the Kashmir insurgency and its attempts to destabilize our economy, it is equally important for us to rely on our own strengths; to understand that to expect others to fight your own battles will at best yield talks of solidarity and a lot of peace documents, much like the ones Israel routinely inks with Palestine.

Most people I know even made a lot of noise about the outrage the leaders of the minority community had expressed over 26/11 and lauded them for ‘condemning the heinous attacks’. What else should they have done, I wondered? Why should we even expect them to think or behave any differently? Last week I attended a meeting in Mahim where leaders of the minority community were asked to suggest ways to educate the common people and avoid their infiltration by the jihadi elements. Most of them blamed their poor economic and social status for their problems but failed to see that for every muslim who is poor or deprived, there are 3 hindus. Even Kashmiri pundits who are forced to flee the valley in what is perhaps one of the worst instances of ethnic cleansing the world has seen, do not take up arms against their persecutors in the name of some religious war. While grievances of social inequality should not be disregarded, they are by no means a valid justification for mindless murder and mayhem. Even if one were to accept such justification, it doesn’t in any way explain the collapse of the twin towers, or the bombings at Bali, Madrid or Glasgow.

A related problem is that of education. It is high time we banned all such institutions that impart education by adhering to the tenets of a particular religion to the exclusion of all else and thus breed intolerance. Before we mull attacking or reforming Pak, we must deal with the enemy within; we must abolish and ban the madarsas that dot the landscape around MP and UP and are breeding grounds of misinformation, hatred and intolerance. One of the most famous instances of this brand of education is the Darul Uloom in Deoband, UP who openly advocates an exclusivist brand of Islam while uttering polite denunciations against terrorists. While such teachings may be routine in Iran or Saudi Arabia, we know that India is different and we fight to preserve this difference.

Finally, we come to the ‘village syndrome’. In 17 century New England, rumors of witchcraft started in small isolated villages and soon flamed into a conflagration that saw hundreds of women being burnt at the stake during the Salem witch trials. While almost all of India was burning with anger against the British in 1857 and the Peshwas were actually mulling mutiny, all it took was a small regiment from Barackpore to start the Sepoy Mutiny. All it takes is one village, one community, to stand up and reject an evil that has taken root so deep that unless it is uprooted for good, it will devour all. Tavleen singh writes, “The best defense against this kind of murderous violence is to limit the pool of recruits, and the only way to do that is for the home society to isolate, condemn and denounce publicly and repeatedly the murderers — and not amplify, ignore, glorify, justify or “explain” their activities.” There is a lesson in this for all of us, notwithstanding our minority status or otherwise. There is a lesson for those Hindus like me who rejoice Narendra Modi’s sweeping victory in the Gujarat elections, as also a lesson for those who cheered when the U.S was brought on its knees in the wake of 9/11. We are all pawns on the same chessboard and what is mine may well be yours tomorrow.

Feb 5, 2009

Fallen Angels - On Expressions of Grief

Currently there is a debate raging within the U.S. military over its awarding of the Purple Heart – the prestigious President’s medal to war veterans. Historically, the medal has gone only to those who have been physically wounded on the battlefield as a result of enemy action. The Pentagon’s recent decision not to award the Purple Heart to soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress (PTS) has caused great controversy and disappointment to family members of those suffering from PST. During the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry’s Purple Hearts, awarded for his service in Vietnam, were dismissed by his opponents because the wounds he suffered were not considered grave enough. While many who suffer from ‘perforated eardrums’ (the commonest war injury) receive the Purple Heart, the Pentagon has overruled the eligibility of those other fallen angels, those suffering from PTS, to receive the same, citing ‘difficulty of accessing seriousness’ as its chief justification.

At the heart of the Pentagon debate lays the futile attempt to somehow, quantify and qualify such variables as damage, grief and pain. So accustomed have we become to ISO certifications, benchmarks, standards and regulations that we are in fear of losing our essential humanity, that single bond that alone can mitigate our individual tragedies and sorrows. The vainglorious and impatient man is so insulated in his plush cocoon of temporal victories, of troubles overcome and hurdles crossed, that he forgets that there are those who may not share the same fortitude or courage that he’s been blessed with.

“Stop wallowing in self pity, after all you have other things to bother about. Look around, there are millions with far greater problems than this stupidity you’re obsessed with”, had said the mother of the 18-year old girl who committed suicide over one of the commonest trifles in almost every adolescent’s life – heartbreak, a broken relationship. Actually, it could be a host of other similar issues – poor academic performance, failure to gain admission into IIM at the third try, merciless ragging in the hostel. We laugh at these curious instances of adolescent angst and grief and loftily proclaim a hierarchy of sorts.

After all, what are these when compared to the headaches of us middle aged busy professionals – endless mortgage payments when you’ve just lost your job, a messy divorce, a diabetic father-in-law who refuses to watch his diet and requires hospitalization almost every week, the daughter whose blood transfusions are getting more frequent with every passing day, a philandering spouse or … … hey, feel free to add your own variations.

No dialogue is possible between the two groups for each is competing with the other to prove the supremacy of their grief, not share it.

People make a big thing of those who complain, who seek to share their sorrows; crudely put - of the proverbial pain-in-the-ass. He/she is shunned at office parties, goes uninvited at weekend luncheons and is barely ever asked out during a Friday night drinking binge. People assume he’d either decline, or worse still, spoil the soiree. We never stop to ask ourselves if there is any relief we could offer to the poor soul, concentrating instead on what he can or cannot offer us.
“Take it easy/ move on/ look towards the end of the tunnel” – life is so replete with these utterly moronic exercises at profundity that I wonder how will such sage discourse help a mother whose 25 -yr old firstborn is counting his last days in the hospital; likewise how can I even dare to advise/show the Citibank executive how he should channel his rage after he has just lost his job and has a family of six to look after? To attempt to write off or qualify any of their concerns reeks of the worst degree of insensitivity and high handedness.

It’s said that happy people make happy employees. Fair enough. Are we then suggesting that we marginalize the unhappy, the depressed, and the unfortunate (for whom happiness is a premium). Why can’t we, the merry band, take a bit more onus for the others? After all Bill Gates could as easily have sprouted the famous management mantra to the refugees in Congo and Rwanda, “Work your ass off, or languish in hell.” But he didn’t. To never have felt pain and yet weep for another who is in pain calls for far greater nobility than an ordinary human being can summon. Pushing the envelope is what I call it, and maybe, it’s just a dash of empathy that we all need today.